Sunday, April 29, 2007

Piled higher and deeper

It used to be the case that a Master's degree, MA or MFA or MMus, was the standard terminal degree for composers. Then, sometime in the late sixties, US institutions started more widely offering doctorates in composition (PhDs or DMAs); without much public ado, that has become the de facto terminal level and doctoral programs in composition continue to open and grow. There are a number of reasons for this development -- on the input level, due to a perception that undergraduates are less well prepared than in the past, but also because a PhD program creates prestige, more interesting course loads for the professorate, and a supply of cheap teaching and research assistants. The big downside of this development is, of course, that there is no correspondence between the increase in advanced degree recipients and available jobs within academia or without, and that the academic job market is increasingly limited by the growth in the professional academic theory specialist and the move of historical musicologists into 20th century and more recent music, areas that had, until recently, been rather safe service teaching territories for composers.

I have noticed, however, that many of the best and best-known of my younger colleagues have chosen not to pursue academic degrees beyond the Master's (or even Bachelor's) level, effectively returning to the credentialing practice of my teachers' generation. On the one hand, this is a realistic response to the working conditions of a TA and the state of the academic job market, but on the other hand, these musicians are in fact spending their journeyperson years figuring out how to make a living (or half-a-living or some other fraction-of-a-living) directly from making music rather than teaching it. I suppose that some of these composers may someday re-enter academe, and perhaps be able to do so at a senior level, but the continuing presence of a class of non-academic composers is an important corrective, and is definitely a good thing.

(For the record, not one of my own composition teachers had a doctorate; in fact, two had no degrees at all and still carried full professorial rank and regalia; a good thing, I think. My own advanced degrees are a composer's MA from a World Music program, and a nominal PhD in Ethnomusicology, as musicology had not yet widely moved into the late 20th century and I had the odd notion that there might be a market somewhere for generalists. I toyed a bit with the idea of pursuing a Habilitation, to add one more degree to my pile of traveling papers, but that notion was met with blank stares by even the most academic of composerly American academics: a Habili-what?.)

1 comment:

Les said...

Yeah, I'm after the PhD just so I can teach. There are still places on the West Coast of the US that are happy with just an MA or MFA. And many places in Europe, but even here, it's changing. It used to be the highest dregree you could get from the Royal Conservatory was a BA. Now it's na MA and they're making noises about a PhD.

Some universities are hiring PhDs, so they can have extra teachers to accomodate their new PhD programs. I fear that by the time I get mine, all the new positions will be filled.

Academic jobs aren't just paychecks. They're access to equipment, libraries, ensembles, and the chance to warp young minds. And you get extra credits for generating useful code. It seems like a sweet deal to me.